Moral Sense

One of the many schools of philosophy I had to study on my way to the PhD in philosophy was the “Moral Sense” school of philosophy in Scotland. Preeminent in the eighteenth century, it was headed by Francis Hutcheson and included such luminaries as David Hume and Adam Smith. And, by the way, many people who read Adam Smith and regard him as the father of free enterprise capitalism forget (or never knew) that his roots were in the Moral Sense school that taught the rudimentary truth that all humans are born with an inherent moral sense that tunes them in to their fellow humans. This moral sense was supposed to restrain human greed that was otherwise let loose in a capitalist system. When, for example, we see another person do something courageous or generous we naturally approve, even feel pleasure. And we do not accumulate wealth in the face of the fact that a great many of our fellow humans are starving and have no place to call home. This sense often takes the form of a lively conscience, but in any event it leads us toward virtuous actions (since we want to imitate those virtuous acts we see around us) and away from vice.

I only found out recently in reading Gary Wills’ excellent book on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson was also a member of the moral sense school of philosophy. Jefferson was taught by a student of Hutcheson by the name of William Small who worked with Jefferson at William and Mary College for four years and later became a close friend and frequent correspondent. In fact, there were many scholars and teachers on the faculties of several American colleges (especially Princeton) who had ties to Scotland and the moral sense school of thought. James Madison, who went to Princeton, was also greatly influenced by that school of thought which was dominant while he was there.

When Jefferson states  in the Declaration that “All men are created equal” he is drawing on the moral sense school. This is because men (and women) are equal in having a moral sense even though they might be unequal in strength or intelligence. Jefferson even included slaves and Native Americans in his pronouncement.

This lends the lie — so often heard — that Jefferson was a hypocrite in talking about the equality of all humans while refusing to free his slaves. But, despite the fact that he knew it was morally indefensible, he spent a great many hours defending the maintenance of slaves on economic grounds; so many of the plantation owners were land rich and cash poor. Freeing the slaves, Jefferson thought, would ruin him financially and would also leave the slaves with nowhere to go and no hope for survival. Moreover, Virginia had a law that required that freed slaves must be provided with a means of making a living. In any event, he worked hard to oppose the continued importation slaves to this continent. This may sound like a rationalization, but Jefferson was deeply convinced that even in their lowly state as property of others his slaves, like all slaves in the South and elsewhere, were equal to him and his well-educated fiends. He was not enlightened enough, sad to say, to admit that they were also just as intelligent as his well-educated friends, but this can be explained (though not justified) by the fact that the slaves were generally not in a position to shine intellectually. It also ignores the obvious fact that many of his white friends, like mine, are not all that bright.

In any event, the original Declaration of Independence is full of claims about the brotherhood of all people (including his English “brethren” who failed to put pressure on the Parliament in order to prevent the Revolution); he saw these claims as simply a way of drawing attention to the fact that those in the Colonies were equal to their British cousins. But much of what Jefferson wrote in this regard was struck out by the Congress who weakened the document and made it seem as though the author was a thorough Lockean individualist — Locke having taught that we all begin as individuals in a state of nature and, driven by self-interest, agree to live in common under civil law in order to protect our property. Jefferson was convinced that humans need to be together in order to become fully human. Jefferson was therefore not a Lockean and while many (including myself) have insisted he was there are solid grounds for insisting that the moral sense school had a profound influence on Jefferson and John Locke very little — though Jefferson had high regard for Locke’s scientific principles.

In the end, Jefferson really did think that all men are equal and he spent much of his time defending that view and trying to act on his beliefs. He’s received some bad press lately from the PC police, but much of that is misguided.

5 thoughts on “Moral Sense

  1. Hugh, thanks for sharing. This is why the Buffetts and Gates of the world, who give back half their wealth for the betterment of people, are to be commended. The fact they got others to do the same in commendable. To other wealthy people, accumulation is a way of keeping score. It is kind of the like the board game “Life” where you wind up at the end with the most money, but then ask the question, is that all there is? Keith

  2. I might argue that not all humans seem to be born with that inherent moral sense. I think most are, but there are the Ted Bundys and Charles Mansons of the world who truly seem to have no moral compass. That said … I think that many humans, as they move ahead in the economic spectrum and amass millions or even billions, learn to ignore or tune out that moral sense with which they were born. I like Keith’s analogy about the board game of Life. I know people who live paycheck to paycheck, but if you needed something they would find a way to help you out, while the wealthy sat in their mansions sipping their martinis and joking about how the other half live.

    • I do think the Enlightenment thinkers were a bit blind to the exceptions. I suspect they would say the moral sense can be blinded in some cases by other “passions” (one of their favorite words).

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